Upgrading Marion County's drug court program

On a warm evening in late March, a man walked to a small motel in Anderson to find two state police cars parked outside. When asked why they were there, the troopers told the man that state police were dismantling a meth-lab in the motel.

Oblivious to the troopers, the man walked up to the room and knocked on the door. Troopers clad in chemical suits answered, and the man asked to buy methamphetamine. They promptly arrested him. He was so high on methamphetamine that he thought the lab was still operating - he didn't even realize they were police.

"That's pretty bizarre," said Sgt. Ray Poole, pubic information officer for the Indiana state police.

In another instance, my family toured remodeled homes during the "Deco' Down" Tour last June. Some friends from high school had beautifully restored the home on 1728 S. Union St. As we turned off Meridian onto Iowa Street on the way to the home, we passed a glaring eyesore.

Instead of a roof, charred wooden beams poked into the open air and the blackened vinyl siding had melted like lava. The house on Iowa Street was a meth-lab that had exploded and caught fire.

Scenes like these and many others are just part of Central Indiana's methamphetamine problem. According to Indiana state police, 13 meth-labs have been dismantled in Marion County alone since 2002.

But meth isn't just a problem in Central Indiana. While state police said they've found the most labs in western counties like Sullivan and Vigo counties, methamphetamine has received national attention lately - to the point that the government has considered regulating cold medicine.

In January, the state was shocked to hear of the death of 10-year-old Katie Coleman, the Crothersville girl who was murdered after wandering in on a meth-lab. While state police are cracking down hard on the supply, other sectors of our local government are taking on a more subtle, elusive problem: the demand.

"Methamphetamine is probably one of the most addictive drugs in the U.S. in how quickly people get addicted," Deputy Prosecutor Brian Jennings said. "It's a poor man's cocaine, really."

But in January 2005, the Prosecutor's Office teamed up with Superior Court and the Public Defender's Office to upgrade Marion County's drug court program. Since January, Indiana drug offenders leaving the prison system are now sent to the drug court's re-entry program. This addition comes to a program that's existed since 1998, and the changes are making an impact.

"The drug court is the alternative for users," Deputy Prosecutor Larry Broder said. "The makers and the dealers, they feel the other side of the coin. If you're a non-violent addict we'll get you treatment. But dealers are sent to the D.O.C. That's our philosophy."

According to Kim Davenport, director of the drug court program, non-violent defendants charged with possession have the option of a plea agreement - and an option for treatment.

"Our philosophy is if they can be engaged in treatment for a year then they're concerned with getting better," Davenport said. "The plea agreement just adds a coercive incentive. Most people who start stick with it."

According to local officials, defendants convicted of possession are screened by the prosecutor and checked for violent criminal history. Eligible defendants who sign a plea bargain then enroll in a voluntary outpatient program lasting 12 to 18 months - with a few stipulations.

If necessary, Davenport said they are first sent to a detox unit or a residential treatment facility. The drug court program requires they meet both with their case worker and their outpatient groups three times a week, talk face to face with a judge once a week and attend 12-step meetings. Participants must also submit to random urine tests three times a week to check for drug use - alcohol included.

The frequency of the requirements are then reduced or increased accordingly in phases for the next 18 months of the program. In addition to the sanctions, the drug court program helps defendants and ex-convicts get back on their feet.

"We're here for them," Davenport said. "We're here to help them get jobs, housing, bus passes, clothes and basic needs. We're taking some of the re-entry clients from the prisons to a play at Indiana Repertory Theatre - some of them have never seen a play before. We want to show them healthy recreational activities that they can enjoy without using substances. We want to take them to Pacers and Indians games. We have incentives - if they're doing a good job we want to recognize it."

But for those clients re-entering from prison in today's economy, finding employment can be no easy task.

"One of my re-entry clients walked into an interview and put that he was a felon on his application," Davenport said. "The employer ripped it up in his face. He was crushed. There is still a stigma. We want to educate employers. We have pools of individuals that are clean, trying to change, and need a break. But we also want them to know we hold our clients accountable."